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I just love this article, “What if We’ve All Been Primed?” written by Tom Nokkola and taken from his blog, tomnikkola.com. It provides some really good insight on why we form cultural tribes and how the COVID-19 saga has put this process on steroids. It also challenges us to break free from this by questioning some commonly accepted beliefs.
The main premise is something called behavioral priming, which leads us to think in specific ways that pit us against one another. Behavioral priming, Nokkola says:
“is the ability to influence someone’s thoughts, attitudes, and behaviors without them knowing about it, through exposing them to a previous stimulus. For example, repeating the phrase, “Stay home. Stay safe.” could be a form of priming, as it has the potential to impact the way people think (or don’t think and just do), speak, or act.”
Quite simply Stay home. Stay safe leaves the distinct implication that if you don’t stay home you are putting yourself and others in jeopardy, you are a danger to the tribe. Hearing the phrase often enough solidifies this truth in the mind and gives license to shame others who don’t follow it.
Interestingly enough, the fear of getting sick with the coronavirus plays right in to this. According to this article from the BBC , fear can even change our psyches making us even more tribalistic. The article goes on to say:
“Due to some deeply evolved responses to disease, fears of contagion lead us to become more conformist and tribalistic, and less accepting of eccentricity. Our moral judgements become harsher and our social attitudes more conservative…”
Hmmmm, moral judgements becoming harsher, what say you Karen?
Another commonly heard phrase Nikkola discusses is, “We’re all in this together“. This also creates a divide with others whose circumstances do not lend them to want to participate in this grand cultural kumbaya moment of pandemic fighting from their couches.
Maybe for them not working literally means not eating. Or perhaps they are financially stable, but worried about the negative effects of the shutdowns vastly outweighing those from the coronavirus. Both are perfectly sane positions, but have somehow become demonized because they infer we are not all in this together, which again threatens the status quo.
New normal is another one. This is frequently used to describe how life will be different after we exit our shelter in place holes and implies we better just darn well get used to it. It’s just the new normal they say and it’s going to be repeated ad nauseam in the weeks and months ahead.
Disagreeing with this implies that you want to make people unsafe by not being on board with, say, making structural changes to society, which Joe Biden stated when discussing his coronavirus response strategy.
These types of phrases also feed in to the natural human inclination to feel morally superior over others. Once that takes effect people get very nasty because they now have a vested interest in being right about your deplorable behavior and will quickly devolve to rude and obnoxious behavior when this belief is challenged.
Nikkola suspects, and I agree with him, there are motives behind this which may not be so pure and that our default action should be to ask questions. As he says:
“What if, by you simply asking, “What if?” you start to feel less concerned about COVID-19, and more about where we’re headed as a country? We all need to ask more questions rather than accept all answers.”
He is not saying there is some Grand Poobah pulling levers behind a curtain, merely that large events such as a global pandemic create much confusion and panic, which people will exploit. That’s not crazy talk, just the natural inclination of man in a fallen world.
My perspective? We are living through an historic moment where the simultaneous catastrophes of a global pandemic and economic shut down have collided with the perfect fear inducing trifecta of 24/7 news, social media narrative setting and the most contentious election year probably in our lifetime.
Needless to say we are saturated in fear, outrage and misinformation and it’s affecting not just how major public policy decisions are being made, but how we relate to each other too.
You can bet there are people out there wanting to exploit this to their advantage.